Materials science rarely gets the spotlight; you would be forgiven for thinking humanity hasn’t invented any new materials since plastic came into the scene in 1862. Luckily, you would be completely wrong. While most of the amazing discoveries made in materials science and engineering haven’t started showing up in mainstream products yet, they’re nevertheless very real and have some incredible applications.
For example, what about transparent aluminum, an idea first made popular by the fourth Star Trek movie? Yeah, that’s a real thing now, made for the first time back in 2009. 1.6 inches of the stuff can stop a .50 caliber bullet, as seen in this jaw-dropping test video. And sure, that might sound thick, but as you’ll see if you watch the video, a slab of bullet-proof glass more than twice as thick can’t stop a bullet the same size.
Or how about glue that only sticks to what you tell it to – and is so strong it that the equipment meant to measure its strength gave out before the glue did? We made it in 2012, out of proteins from a flesh-eating bacteria. It’s expected to have significant medical uses, such as detecting cancer cells. Another such glue can actively fight cancer cells, and another might be used to create a radical new kind of antibiotic.
And remember hearing about how incredibly strong and elastic spider silk is as a kid? Well Spider-man’s signature artificial silk is now a reality. In addition to the obvious applications like protective military fabric and parachute cloth, it’s also expected to have all sorts of other crazy uses, including things likes making better hearing aids, repairing nerves, and fighting cancer and tuberculosis. Future versions hope to mimic a recently discovered property of real spider silk called supercontraction, with the idea that artificial spider silk could be used as muscles for robots. More mundanely, artificial spider silk has been used to make ties, a dress, and a ski jacket, although you shouldn’t be expecting artificial-spider-silk-textiles to start showing up in stores for at least a few more years.
Oh, and you’ve probably heard about the amazing properties of graphene, the incredibly light, incredibly strong, incredibly-conductive-of-heat-and-electricty super-material? It was just made obsolete by borophene, a similar made of boron that is even stronger and more flexible. Given that carbon nanotubes, essentially tubes with walls of graphene, are currently the strongest meterials yet discovered (they can have a tensile strength of 9,100,000 pounds per square inch) the potential for borophene is incredible just on strengh alone.
So yes, materials science isn’t as glamourous as, say, robotics. Research is comparatively slow, and the results are rarely as flashy. It can be hard to find exciting news. And yet, newly discovered materials are quietly changing the world, just like it did with the incredible new material called plastic we now find ubiquitous. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the hard work of materials scientists!